12 September 2018

The Tory case for strong trade unions

By Nick Denys

The world of work matters to Conservatives. It is through work that a person can achieve their dreams, be rewarded for the effort they put into our society. If you work hard you can climb the ladder to reach the house or car that you have always wanted. The feeling you get from doing a good job is special, and it is a satisfaction everyone can achieve. Work helps to create order by binding people into the capitalist system.

To be true to their beliefs Conservatives need to make sure that workers are rewarded fairly. This means dropping any suspicions of worker involvement in business and supporting the non-party political trade unions that are there for all workers.

The Government is right to celebrate the success of the UK labour market: employment rates are at their highest since the mid-1970s. One in ten households used to contain no one who worked full-time. Now there are almost no such households.

But these achievements do not allow Conservatives to ignore the growing fracture between workers and capitalism. More than two-thirds of working class people say that Britain has changed for the worse over the past 20 – 30 years. Wage growth is stagnant – the slowest it has been since children were sent up chimneys.

In some respects the wage ice-age can seem inconsequential. The cost of clothes, electronics, entertainment and food has stayed static or fallen over the last decades. A person can get a pizza delivered to their kitchen table while they watch the first 10 minutes of 20 programmes on Netflix. This view ignores that the cost of housing, health care and education – the things that give us stability and opportunity – has sprinted ahead of most people’s household budgets. If a worker cannot provide good shelter and opportunities for their family, it’s understandable if deep down they feel angry and inadequate.

Supporting trade unions should be a key part of the Government’s strategy to increase productivity, wages and good working environments. Workplaces where trade unions operate are more equitable and ethical. Good trade unions can help to create a richer, happier and more productive workforce. To make effective change you need to take the workforce with you. Including the shop floor in the dilemmas a business faces is often key to successfully reforming working practices.

The problem is that mainstream trade union movement has been captured by hard-left voices who spend their time on party politics, rather than bread-and-butter issues. There is no place for a Conservative speaker at this week’s TUC Congress. The Government is not worthy of getting an insight into their debate.

Len McCluskey uses his position to berate moderate Labour MPs, defend Jeremy Corbyn against perceived smears, and marshal Unite’s resources for “building a broad alliance to beat the Tories”. Instead he should focus on the two main forces that will most affect his members – Brexit and technology. It is not surprising that young people do not see the point of trade unions when only 16% of members think “that their unions are taking steps to help ensure that new technologies improve their working life”.

As the membership base of trade unions becomes narrower, so their ability to play a part in our economy diminishes. Despite good intentions trade unions have an abysmal record in attracting those who most need their help. Someone who is over 50 and in a high-paid public sector job is 25 times more likely to be a member of a union than someone under 30 in a low-paid private sector job. This matters because all workers should have a stake in their economic success.

The Conservatives should encourage a louder worker voice by reforming the law to encourage non-party politically affiliated unions to flourish. Such unions should be able to advertise their services in any workplace, promote new forms of collective bargaining, the benefits from having a tax status equivalent to charity status, and follow a less stringent reporting regime than political unions. Those trade unions that want to play party-politics can continue to do so, but they will not be taken seriously as a workers’ organisation.

Nick Denys is Head of Policy for Tory Workers, and a local councillor in the London Borough of Hillingdon